Ancient Chinese fortune-telling reveals modern fates

How one of the world’s most mysterious occupations can make tellers a fortune.

By Brian Evancic
[associate news editor]

“I’d guess about 50 per cent of them go to fortune tellers,” says Richard Mo about the Metro Vancouver Chinese community. The 27-year-old has spent the last seven years helping his uncle, Peter Fong, with his fortune-telling practice.

Fong operates from out of his Vancouver home, and Mo assists him with English-to-Cantonese translation.

Their clients usually come on a per-year basis, mostly around the Chinese New Year, to find out what the next 12 months have in store.

Mo says that the most common fortune-telling technique is Four Pillars of Destiny. The pillars represent the year, month, day and time of your birth. Not a lot of people know their time of birth, but Mo says it is crucial for a fortune teller to know, as it raises the accuracy of a prediction from 75 per cent to about 90.

The information is run through a set of calculations to determine how it aligns with other data from Chinese astrological calendars. It’s an ancient method, and fortune tellers learn some of the trade through a collection of textbooks titled “Sheng Chen BaZi” in Pinyin — or Four Pillars of Destiny.

Chinese fortune telling is a traditionally male practice. Encyclopaedias of the time denigrated the few female tellers who existed as “foolish,” according to Texas university professor Richard J. Smith in his paper, “Women and Divination in Traditional China: Some Reflections.”

Moreover, key aspects are not recorded in order to preserve an oral tradition, so that immoral characters can be weeded out in the recruitment process. Scryers of the Chinese tradition believe the power to foretell can be used for very detrimental purposes, when in the wrong hands.

That is why 59-year-old Sherman Tai, a full-time fortune-teller living in Richmond, was in a unique position when he began the art. At the age of six in rural China, he was taken under the tutelage of a Tibetan monk, who said Karma had lead him to Tai.

Today, he keeps a Buddhist shrine in his office about five feet from his desk, which is covered in magazines that he’s appeared in. Yet he emphasizes that religion is not the basis for Chinese fortune-telling and that it can be practised by the secular as much as the religious.

Tai wears the casual business wear of a real estate dealer. Clean-cut, and with black, rectangular-frame glasses, his appearance definitely belies his unusual occupation. Mo dresses much in the same way, except with the more fashionable edge of a young man, his hair carefully and stylishly gelled.

Since fortune tellers are expected to have earned a certain amount of life experience before the community can take them and their fortunes seriously, Tai waited 31 years after first meeting the Tibetan monk to start doing it professionally. He moved from Hong Kong to Canada just one year later.

The monk had also taught him Feng Shui, and Tai has been consulted for various building projects, from athletic facilities for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics to Richmond City Hall.

Tai used Feng Shui to make a prediction — at the behest of some media outlets — that the Canucks would not win the Stanley Cup in 2011, six months prior to the playoffs. He saw the placement of the Olympic Torch near water the previous year as an ominous sign, fire and water being two of the five integral elements in Feng Shui. The placement indicated to Tai that the loss would lead to trouble as well, which he says later manifested in the form of the riots.

Tai also claims to have foretold more significant global events, such as the inauguration of Obama, the financial collapse of 2008 and the Japan earthquake. To make predictions of happenings on this scale, Tai uses an astrological calendar and observes the relationships between the Sun, Moon and stars in combination with more mundane data, such as political or economic information.

Rebutting skeptics of the authenticity of his profession, Tai cites the overall accuracy of his predictions, as well as the fact that techniques like the Four Pillars of Destiny have been around for thousands of years.

Tai says that the fortune-telling side of his practice — what he calls “personal consultation” — has been garnering fewer new Chinese customers, but people of other ethnicities are filling the void, such as Koreans, Middle-Easterners, Indians and Westerners.

He says that all ethnic groups ask the same questions because, “We are all human and we all have the same desires.” Popular topics include love, money, health and family.

“The new generation doesn’t like it much,” says Mo, but he does say that some younger girls have come to see them. Mo thinks a lot of the younger people who go to fortune tellers go just for tradition’s sake or to appease their families.

One thing’s for sure: Fortune-telling can make you a fortune. Mo says his uncle gets an average of $2,000 per telling. A client’s first prediction takes about 16 hours for the fortune teller, because they’re setting up a new file, but all subsequent tellings take four hours.

Mo adds that you can charge a lot more money if the calculations indicate that your client will become rich, since they will clearly be able to afford it. The robust income is why Mo would like to do it part-time, after he has finished his training.

Tai’s lowest fee is $30. This gets you just one question regarding the coming year answered. He often fulfils these kinds of requests en masse, such as when he was hired by the CGA to tell a fortune for each of the 50 attendants at one of their events.

Sometimes, a fortune teller predicts that a client will suffer bodily harm. In such cases, Tai will recommend some mitigating measures. Tai says that when he consulted the HSBC CEO in 1994, he told him that he should take his upcoming vacation in a cold climate to reduce the damage of an inevitable injury. The CEO ignored his advice by going to Thailand and got into a car accident that put him in the hospital. Tai says that skeptical clients usually become believers after such incidents.

Ominous fortunes can elicit hostility from clients, even when they come true. Mo’s uncle once predicted that a bartender would get into a fight and lose badly. Fong had said the man should assume a pacifistic attitude and apologize in the case of a confrontation over the coming weeks. The man didn’t, get beaten badly, and called Fong, leaving him several caustic voice-mails.

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